Roman world

Rome, the village on the Palatine would develop into the centre of the world.


To judge from preserved utensils, furniture and domestic decoration, the general living standard in smaller towns like Pompeii, where sufficient work and accommodations were evidently available, must have been quite high. In the large cities, on the other hand, social differences would have been much wider. Archaeological excavations uncover little evidence of the lower classes because their possessions were humble and impermanent. In contrast, the material and quality of the finds from Rome's religious and political centre, the Forum Romanum , demonstrate they were made for long-term use. Thus our impression of ancient society is sharply biased.


Sanctuaries existed in all shapes and sizes. The design of the classical Roman temple was borrowed from the Etruscans. Placed on high podiums, the temples could be seen from a distance. The earliest were constructed of wood, tuff and fired clay. Marble and limestone were not employed until the late second century B.C. as the Romans experienced more and more of the Greek and Hellenistic worlds. The pieces of architectural ornaments (APM09233) date from the later, richer phase.


The authorities also encouraged cults of personified objects and concepts. A sanctuary was built to Vesta, the goddess of fire, for instance, and to Fortuna, the embodiment of life's lot. A proud army general could erect a temple to his personal good fortune, that is, his day of military victory, and create a special new deity.

Greek gods

The Roman counterparts of the Greek gods could be represented in the Greek manner, like the Mercury with his idealized nude, male body that evokes little of the commercial shrewdness which made him hugely popular throughout the Roman empire. Dredged up from the river Waal at Nijmegen, he shows none of the physical traits which would probably have typified the native inhabitants of the former Roman province now situated in the Netherlands. His nudity instead harks back to the Greek world and would doubtless have struck the 'provincials' as remarkable.


Public and religious buildings marked the centre of Rome, the Forum Romanum, and crowned the tops of its hills. Domestic houses crowded closely around the monumental structures, their brick and plaster contrasting sharply with the latter's marble and travertine. The columns, reliefs and sculpture adorning the facades of official buildings lent them stateliness and distinction. The plants and fruit of a relief (APM09233) attest to the faith in prosperity which was propagated by official imagery. From Augustus on, strong emphasis was placed on the notions of wealth and peace which, according to the emperors, depended directly on their benevolence, as symbolized by flourishing foliage.


Thus the home furnishings were among the surest signs of a family's wealth. Marble slabs on the walls and floor, paintings and mosaics, all helped to express worldly success. Solidly painted walls, white or otherwise, were not a usual feature of Roman houses. The colourfully painted decoration of even the simplest rooms and houses was usually based on architectural elements which conveyed some sense of grandeur. The creation of illusory architectural settings, partly by means of imitating costly materials, went back to the Hellenistic world. Such multicoloured walls were enlivened with images of exceptional objects as well as with wooden panels bearing figures. The winged female was among the embellishments of a smart salon-like room of a villa near Pompeii dating from the middle of the first century A.D. The nearly life-sized figures enacted an unknown story.


Roman floors were often paved with mosaic, which had the extra advantage of being easy to keep clean. The sheep comes from an early Christian church, although it could just as well have been in a domestic room. Figurative themes were interchangeable, and rarely was a decorative motif reserved exclusively for a specific ambience.


A Roman of any means invited many guests to dinner. Reclining on couches, they drank wine out of silver or gilded cups. The kind of stylish red pottery was made in Arezzo, southern France, Rhineland and Tunisia. Tableware, whether matching or not, was manufactured locally and sometimes furnished with suitable inscriptions. Also glass drinking vessels soon gained a place in Roman households. The material has many advantages: it is light and elegant, easy to clean, and cannot be tainted by the content's taste. Some glass vessels would have cost just as much as their counterparts in precious metal.


The rooms for eating and talking often adjoined a garden, surrounded by a colonnade. The host and guests could imagine they were in the world of the nature gods and look at pictures of them which increased their feelings of bliss. A divine figure like the personification of autumn could, so to speak, pop up between the bushes, and the relief between the columns showing figures in the ambience of the wine god Dionysus might flutter in a gentle breeze (APM15076).


For the Greeks and Romans a portrait had a special significance. Not everyone was allowed to have one made at whim, nor was money the sole criterion. At first, distinguished people could be honoured in public with a statue only after death. From the first century B.C. on, however, politicians began to have themselves portrayed during their lifetime in sculpture and on coins. The new practice was linked to the above-mentioned pretensions of late Republican generals: they imitated the Hellenistic rulers whom they had defeated on the battlefield, even though the former maintained a much higher cultural level. A distinct category of Roman portraiture is the death mask. Wax casts of the heads of deceased family members stood in the houses of the elites and were carried around in funeral processions. Monumental grave markers might show replicas of death masks, as probably the woman, or be decorated with specially designed reliefs. The death mask contributed greatly to the strongly realistic character of Roman portraits.

Imperial portraits

The emperors spread their portraits across the empire. Various fixed images of them were familiar to everyone, as seen on coins and in other media. Although found in Asia Minor, for example, the portrait of Tiberius would easily be recognized by someone in Spain. From the Augustan age on, the emperors and their wives set the fashions: their hair styles and even physical traits were copied, so we can date images of commoners on the basis of imperial portraits. The imperial children and grandchildren were also represented. Gradually, less exalted personages got more opportunity to display their portraits publicly. Roman bronze sculpture, like the head which belonged to full-length statue in Asia Minor, is today rare.

Burial practices

As in Greece, religious law prohibited burial within the settled area. The sarcophagi were placed in mausoleums along the main roads entering Rome. Alternatively, the corpses were laid in niches built into the walls of such monuments or, underground, in alcoves or trenches cut out of the tuff. A sarcophagus or relief covering a burial niche made an especially big public impression because it would be seen by many people on the festival days commemorating the dead. The structure might feature a portrait of the deceased, like the slab, or, more often, a mythological subject or a genre scene.

Dionysus as the god of death

The high-spirited nature of the wine god Dionysus/Bacchus and his followers  expresses the belief that the god can free us from life's woes. However, the Romans evidently imagined the underworld was not a particularly exciting place: the shades simply wandered around in subterranean darkness. As we lack basic knowledge about Roman perceptions, the meaning of the scenes can only be approximated. The wine god was doubtless a god of death, bringing deliverance from life. The monumental coffin is shaped like a tub in which the corpse was washed. But the form is also suggestive of a trough for treading grapes, like the one used by the jolly treaders. The vegetal ornaments adorning sarcophagi are often reminiscent of funerary wreaths and branches, while referring to the eternity of nature. Perhaps the latter is also suggested by the relief garlands of architectural decoration.

  • Forum Romanum c. 1854

Items related to this story